Why Did Police Kill a Suicidal Teenager in the Heart of Silicon Valley?


On July 4 of this year, San Jose police shot 18-year-old Anthony Nuñez dead on the front porch of his family’s home while he was suffering from a suicidal episode.

On its face, his death never should have happened. The capital of Silicon Valley, San Jose has a booming economy and some of the best crime statistics in the country. (In 2015 it had the lowest violent crime rate of any U.S. city with a population of more than half a million.) And it’s in a liberal state where you might think that mental health awareness would lead police to help, not harm, someone like Nuñez.

Instead, San Jose has seen a string of police killings in recent years that give it one of the highest ratios of police killings to overall homicides in the U.S. One in six San Jose gun deaths happened at the hands of police in 2015—twice as many as the national rate of one in 13. Retracing the disputed circumstances of Anthony’s killing reveals why Silicon Valley’s prosperity and liberal politics are failing to prevent excessive use of police force.

Anthony had seen plenty of misfortune in his life, but he had no history of violence. His mother died from a hemorrhage within days of his birth. His father was absent and sometimes in prison. He was adopted at birth by his maternal grandparents, Pedro and Austrebertha Nuñez, who both died by the time Anthony was six.

After that he lived with his Aunt Rosa, then at the age of seven he was adopted by another aunt, Sandy Sanchez, the woman Anthony called “Mom.” She raised him alongside her own son and daughter, and “showed him love the same as her own children,” according to Anthony’s cousin, Jason Reyes Sr. However, as a teenager, Anthony would often say he missed his biological mother.

“There was no attempt made to try and talk to him, like ‘Hey, we’re here to help you.’”

He had served time in juvenile hall for truancy and for violating probation by cutting school again. But he’d turned his life around, according to Reyes and Nina Perez, Anthony’s girlfriend. He had long-term plans for the future. He had recently graduated from high school and started a job at the grocery store Mi Pueblo. He’d told Perez that he wanted to marry her, and he had also talked about his plan to join the army and later go to college. His family repeatedly talked to me about his kindness and thoughtfulness. “He was always there for me,” Nina Perez told me. “I’ve never met a boy like Anthony.”

The day he died, he called Sandy and asked her to come home, but she was at a family reunion in Yakima, Washington—a hub for Latino migrants working in agriculture—and said she’d be home the next day.

The police didn’t know any of that when they saw Nuñez standing on the porch of his home that afternoon on July 4. They responded to him as a dangerous threat, making his death part of a pattern of recent officer-involved shootings in San Jose, in which most victims are Latino, mentally ill, or both.

When the police arrived, Nuñez had already shot himself with his grandfather’s revolver, a family heirloom. The bullet had grazed the side of his head. His cousin Junior found him dazed and bleeding in their aunt and uncle’s room, and at 4:51 PM called 911 for help. The police arrived before the ambulance, and within 15 minutes Nuñez was dead, killed by two bullets fired from AR-15 assault rifles.

Even if he were armed, Anthony might have survived if San Jose police were better equipped to deal with mental health crises.

Police claim that Anthony came out of the house armed with a handgun, which he pointed at them. But according to the family’s attorney, the police account conflicts with testimony from an independent witness, a neighbor who lived directly across the street. “The witness had a clear vantage point and is very adamant,” the family’s lawyer Adante Pointer told me. “He said Anthony wasn’t holding a weapon, wasn’t pointing a weapon.”

Anthony’s cousin Junior says that Anthony didn’t have a gun. Junior says the 911 dispatcher told him to hide the gun from Anthony, so he concealed it in the backyard.

The family now believes that police kept Feller Avenue sealed for nearly 12 hours so that officers could find the gun, plant it on Anthony, and justify his shooting. “They all went into the back of the house looking for that weapon so they could lay it by his body and take a picture,” Reyes told me. The family’s lawyer gives credence to this theory. “The idea that the police may have moved the gun or violated the integrity of the crime scene all are up for discussion,” said Pointer.

The police would not comment on these allegations. Public Information Officer Enrique Garcia told me that he was unable to answer my questions, and referred me to the Santa Clara District Attorney’s office for answers. Sean Webby at the District Attorney’s office told me that the DA can’t comment on the allegations until their formal report is released, determining whether the officers involved will face charges, which will happen some months from now. Unusually, the police press release about the incident did not name the officers involved, nor has the family been told their names.

Even if he were armed, Anthony might have survived if San Jose police were better equipped to deal with mental health crises. His family believes police could have tried to de-escalate and used non-lethal force. “When they arrived, it’s not like they went to the front door and knocked and identified themselves,” Reyes told me, summarizing accounts he has heard from neighbors who witnessed the shooting. “There was no attempt made to try and talk to him, like ‘Hey, we’re here to help you.’”

San Jose police commanders dispute that account. They have talked about the incident as a shining example of de-escalation, despite the fact that Nuñez ended up dead. SJPD Chief Eddie Garcia praised the officers involved. “I’m very pleased and proud of the officers for using the restraint that they did” in talking to Anthony for 14 minutes before killing him, Garcia said in a press conference.

In addition to Nuñez, police have killed three other San Jose residents experiencing mental distress since 2014. Philip Watkins, 23, was suicidal when he was shot dead in February 2015 after his family called 911 for help. Diana Showman, 19, was schizophrenic and was having an apparent breakdown when she was fatally shot in her front garden in August 2014. And 38-year-old Antonio Guzman Lopez was shot in the back in February 2014 by San Jose University campus police who perceived him as mentally disturbed. In all three cases, police claimed it was necessary to shoot people who were armed: Watkins had a knife, Showman was carrying a drill, and Lopez was holding a drywall saw.

Yet other countries somehow manage not to kill people during mental health crises. In Britain, police killed no one at all, in any situation, in 2015. In Germany, police killed only seven people in 2014, and are trained to approach even armed suspects with the mantra “Don’t shoot.”

By contrast, America’s police killed 991 people in 2015, over 25% of whom showed signs of mental illness, according to the Washington Post. People suffering from mental distress are 16 times more likely to be killed by U.S. police, according to a report from the Virginia-based Treatment Advocacy Center.

In 2016, California passed a law mandating 40 hours of mental health Crisis Intervention Training (CIT)—a move that happened too late to save Anthony. However, 40 training hours is still relatively few compared to training hours overall. American police train for an average of 840 hours (21 weeks), 168 hours of which focus on the use of force, according to a 2013 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Less than 5% of California’s police training hours focus on dealing with mental health crises, even though such crises are part of an estimated 15% of emergency calls.

Police haven’t said whether any officers involved in Nuñez’s death had CIT. But in any case, CIT doesn’t always help. In the recent shootings of Antonio Guzman Lopez and Diana Showman, the officers involved had CIT, and in both cases said they didn’t use it.

“I am not a counselor. I am not there to talk to them about their problem…That’s not the time to, you know, explore his psyche,” said Officer Frits Van Der Hoek, one of the two officers involved in Lopez’s shooting, in a legal deposition. The officer who shot Diana Showman said she thought her CIT didn’t come into play because the situation developed so fast. The subtext here is that, because Lopez and Showman were holding construction tools, they were considered so dangerous that they needed to be subdued immediately by any means.

Police may also have wrongly perceived Anthony as a threat because they were overworked and exhausted. Stress and anxiety levels have “definitely” increased since 2012 because of an acute staffing crisis, former San Jose Police Chief Rob Davis told me.

San Jose officers now work up to 17 hours a day. After 10-hour shifts, they’re often required to stay on for an extra six hours. To cope with these exceptionally long hours, at least a dozen officers are sleeping in RVs parked outside SJPD headquarters. Officers were forced to work 450 hours of mandatory overtime last year, compared to 100 hours overtime worked by officers in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Even so, police were simply unable to respond to 85,000 “low priority” 911 calls last year.

The department has been virtually halved since 2012, when voters passed ballot Measure B, slashing police pensions and benefits. It’s lost 630 officers, leaving only 806 on the force. Hundreds of officers left the department and new recruits dried up. It’s remarkable that in one of the most affluent parts of the country, police compensation has been inadequate to recruit enough officers. (The department may be able to recruit again after November 2016 if voters pass ballot Measure F, which would restore some pension and disability benefits.)

All of this has implications for the mental state of officers responding to emergencies. It’s easy to imagine that exhausted, stressed, anxious officers might react with panic to reports of an armed man, and mistake any object in his hand for a weapon.

The extra stresses faced by San Jose police likely exacerbate the fear instilled by their training. We know that police nationally are trained to fear for their lives. Their training reinforces over and over, with terrifying videos and simulations, that there is more risk in hesitating to shoot than in taking your time.

“Better to be judged by 12 than carried by six” is a common phrase among police, according to a former officer, Seth Stoughton, writing in The Atlantic. (The “12” are jury members, the “six” are a coffin’s pallbearers.) “Officers are trained to shoot before a threat is fully realized,” Stoughton adds, before figuring out whether “that dark object in the suspect’s hands could be a wallet, not a gun.”

There’s one more reason why officers may have perceived Nuñez as more of a threat than he actually was: He was Latino. And if you’re black or Latino in San Jose, there’s a far greater chance you’ll be killed by the police, stopped in your car, or “curb-stopped”—forced to sit on the curb while police search your vehicle.

In 2015, San Jose’s police killed black and Latino men at four times the rate you’d expect. The city is one-third black and Latino, but blacks and Latinos made up more than two thirds of those killed by police since 2013, according to the Mapping Police Violence research project associated with Black Lives Matter.

Traffic stop data released by SJPD in 2015 showed that African-Americans and Latinos are targeted in nearly two thirds of all stops and more than three-quarters of curb-stops.

Anthony’s killing has “devastated” and “transformed” his family, according to Reyes.

His adoptive mother, Sandy Sanchez, was too upset to speak to me. She still lives in the home where Anthony was killed. Before Anthony’s death, it was a hub for the extended family. “It was a house filled with a lot of love, happiness, joy,” said Reyes. “We’d have BBQs and watch football games. She was a great cook and she would always be cooking.” Sandy ran a daycare in her home, and she took in and cared for other kids, including Anthony, his cousin Junior, and Aleana Sanchez, a friend of Sandy’s daughter who lived with them for over a year.

“Anthony was very loved,” his aunt Sarah Nuñez told me. “He was very sweet, very outgoing, always smiling, a very beautiful person.” She added, crying, “it’s so hard because I can’t see him any more, and we won’t see him ever again.”

Mary Noble is managing editor at Topix. She’s British and writes about American politics for fun. Reach her at [email protected].

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